Melaleuca Bonsai – Rags to Riches

I have written this story to encourage others to give natives a go because in a relatively short space of time you can convert a nursery stock plant to a tree worth putting on the bench and in a competition.

I purchased a Melaleuca Styphiloides stock plant in May 2017 from Bonsai World in Jilliby. I could see potential in the tree because it already had a good sized trunk with a strong bend in it a few centimetres from the base.

Melaleuca Styphiloides Bonsai
Melaleuca Styphiloides – May 2017

I cut the tree a couple of centimetres above the bend of the trunk leaving only a couple of shoots below. I also shortened the root system by about half using a knife the slice across the root ball. Although melaleuca species a generally very robust, I always develop my natives in stages not doing too much to them sat any one time. I then planted the tree in a generous training pot using a good native bonsai soil mix. The mix I used was that recommended by the Victorian Native Bonsai Club (2 parts diatomite, 1 part mini pine bark, ¾ choir peat, ½ perlite).

The plant responded well over the next year I began shaping the branches and cut back the foliage.

Melaleuca Bonsai October 2018
Melaleuca – October 2018

When I went to repot the tree, I found that the whole pot was full of tiny roots but basically none of the tree had developed any decent nebari. I changed the potting mix – replacing the diatomite with pumice and the
perlite with vermiculite and let the tree grow on.

By March of 2019, two years after purchase, the tree was now ready to be put into a bonsai pot and I found “just the one” at the Auburn AusMarket sales.

Though the tree was now sitting better in the right sized pot, the soil area near the base of the tree still looked like a “lump.” I excavated the soil and fine roots hoping to find some larger roots to expose.

Despite this, I decided to enter the tree in the Royal Easter Show in the section natives (other than fig) over 400mm. I managed a second and I was really stoked.

Melaleuca Bonsai - April 2019
April 2019, Two years after styling, my Melaleuca is
now bench-able.

The tree is still very young and has a way to go. It needs to have the nebari further developed and its foliage needs to be refined and cut a little closer in. So give a native a go – they grow fast; the can get results in a relatively short time and are really rewarding.

Melaleuca linariifolia

Successfully growing Australian native bonsai

“There is a question that continually crops up in bonsai talks…. Can you bonsai Australian natives?

The answer is a big, fat YES. Aussie natives make fantastic, rewarding bonsai as long as they are treated the way Aussie natives like to be treated”. Lee has been successfully growing Australian native bonsai for many years and spoke at a recent SCBC meeting. The featured image above, a Coastal Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum)is one of Lee’s Australian native bonsai.

Yes, they grow in a sunburned country but a lot of them like a LOT of water and it is often necessary to keep some species in water trays, especially in the summer. Yes, you can go to a nursery and see a native that is in very dry soil and growing. But the question is:-how well is it growing and how well do you want it to grow? If you want the tree to put out a lot of foliage to give you styling options and develop ramification it is preferable to treat it well and that treatment includes very moist soil for a lot of the varieties.

Coastal tee tree, Leptospermum laevigatum
Coastal tee tree, Leptospermum laevigatum

Melaleucas, banksias, callistemon, leptospermum, water gums (Tristaniopsis laurina), baeckea, casuarinas, ficus, and kunzea all like moist soil. Most grow their roots down to the water table and while the area they grow in may appear dry they aren’t.

I keep my melaleucas, baeckea, banksia and water gums in water trays 24/7, only taking them out in periods of heavy rain. The water trays are low so the water just comes above the base of the pot. This has never been detrimental to these species. It can cause moss to develop on the trunk and this has to be removed – which can be a problem in paperbark or heavily fissured bark. It is a delicate balancing act to keep the water up and the moss down but natives as bonsai are worth the effort.

Styling, well Japanese styling is pretty much out for natives. Happily the bonsai world is moving to a more natural styling rather than the seriously stylized shapes that have been popular. It is important to see how the tree grows in its natural habitat and refine the growth so it is artistically realistic. Creating a bonsai ‘a la naturelle’ is not on as our trees tend to have a raggedy growth pattern. Judicious branch selection and pruning can bring that into line with bonsai ideals and the tree’s growth preferences.

It is important to keep in mind when styling that a lot of Australia species have a very fine growth style with open spaces and a sparsity of foliage due to the nature of their environment. When trees are being developed to benching status a more open foliage canopy is the way to go rather than having tightly packed foliage.

Melaleuca linariifolia "Snow in Summer"
Melaleuca linariifolia “Snow in Summer”

Speaking personally, it is very easy to get a solid crown on melaleucas, baeckeas, banksias and leptospermums but lightening and opening up the crown brings a greater feeling of the Australian bush to the tree.

Check out the SCBC July 2014 newsletter for more information on how to care for Australian Native bonsai as well as some common pests and diseases.